Digital sovereignty is central to European strategic autonomy – Speech by President Charles Michel at “Masters of digital 2021” online event | EU Council Press

It’s a real pleasure to speak about our Digital Agenda – a topic that is having a profound effect on our common future. And a topic, during this pandemic, that’s having such an immediate impact on how we do business, how we govern, and how we go about our daily lives.

Digital is one of the two pillars, with climate change, of our European transformation strategy. A strategy conceived and launched well before any of us had heard of COVID-19. And this pandemic is making our digital strategy more necessary than ever.

Today I want to focus on why our Digital Agenda is crucial to our European strategic autonomy. Then I’d like to say a few words on how our Digital strategy can help us get there.

What do we mean by “strategic autonomy”?

It means more resilience, more influence. And less dependence. The EU is the number one trading powerhouse in the world. We have negotiated significant trade agreements with other major economies and regional blocks. We are an open market economy. And we believe trade is beneficial to our economy and to our population.  

Strategic autonomy is about being able to make choices. We want greater autonomy and greater independence in an open and global environment. This means reducing our dependencies, to better defend our interests and our values. We want a more level playing field and more fairness in today’s globalised world.

Interdependence is natural, even desirable.  Over-dependence, however, is not. So, strategic autonomy has nothing to do with protectionism. On the contrary.

COVID has shone a brutal spotlight into every corner of our societies. It has revealed our strengths, but also our weaknesses. This is particularly true where our over-dependence makes us vulnerable. In healthcare, for example – the supply of face masks or critical medical equipment. Or in the digital sector – the supply of microprocessors and telecom infrastructure.

Strategic autonomy does not mean producing everything ourselves. This is neither desirable nor realistic. We don’t seek to be stronger to be more self-centred. Quite the opposite. We want to be strong, independent and confident to look outwards, beyond our borders – to contribute to a better, fairer and greener world.   

No strategic autonomy without digital sovereignty

You know, better than most, the pivotal role that digital sovereignty plays in our greater goal of strategic autonomy. I won’t lecture you on business or technical issues – you are the specialists. But it might be useful for you to hear how we – European leaders – frame our digital agenda in the global context.

Huge opportunities

The world is on the brink of the next stage of the fourth industrial revolution. Europe has enormous potential in the fields of data, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Our industrial data, for instance, represents a massive resource. And the move towards edge computing will put Europe in a much more favourable position, than in the previous stage, where non-European actors took the lead in personal data gathering, and cloud computing.

The potential of this new kind of resource seems infinite. But we must not repeat the errors of the past: the over-exploitation of our natural resources. We have abused these resources and brought our planet – and our biodiversity – to the edge of disaster.

So we must not abuse data – our new 21st century resource – in the same way. In recent years, however, we have seen the abuse of personal data – the over-exploitation of data by companies in pursuit of profit. Or by states, like in China, for the purpose of controlling their citizens.

We must use our new digital resources wisely to protect the “environment” of our fundamental values – democracy and individual freedoms.

It is not only a political issue, it’s also an economic one. We must ensure the sustainability of these resources. Citizens will not accept to be transformed into objects, to see their personal and consumption choices guided by secret algorithms.

Strengths

We have unique and undeniable strengths. Our market of 450 million people. And with it, comes our regulatory power. The famous “Brussels effect” – that enables us to set the highest standards for our citizens, while projecting these standards across the world. This is especially true in the digital domain. Take our General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016. And today’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, proposed by the Commission.

And we have another powerful tool: our competition policy. It has an effect beyond our borders. This ensures that consumers have more choice and fair prices in a fair market.  

But let’s not be naïve. Competition, one of the oldest competences of the European Union, can be used to elevate our standards, and also to develop our European interests.

Finally, the same could be said about tax. In the European Union, this remains mainly a national competence. It’s a sensitive topic. Many want to keep a healthy tax competition within our Union.   

But attitudes are changing.  This competition between Member States is being exploited. This can generate resentment and a feeling of unfairness among SMEs and citizens. This is particularly true in the digital world. It’s no longer acceptable, nor sustainable, that companies make huge profits in a market without paying taxes where they operate.

These are all issues that should be settled in the framework of international cooperation. Like I said earlier, there are currently several global models of digital development and governance. Between an unregulated model and a state-controlled model we, Europeans, promote a human-centric, ethics-based approach, that serves our citizens.

Our ambition is to lead the way and work with partners to deliver a rulebook for the digital economy. And now, we have a fresh opportunity to forge a joint EU-US tech agenda. A consensus is emerging – on both sides of the Atlantic – that online platforms and Big Tech have the potential to threaten our common democratic values.

We are currently reaching out to stakeholders both in the EU and US to explain our goals. To set fair rules and ensure online businesses respect EU fundamental rights and values, when operating in our market. And also to tackle other pressing issues like cybersecurity.

We are determined to take up these challenges with the US, and all other willing partners. However, if necessary, we are ready to lead the way on our own.

Obstacles

In the European Union, we are good at regulating our playground and influencing other playgrounds. But that’s not enough. We want to see our homegrown companies take root, grow, and prosper into global leaders right here in the European Union. This is of course alongside non-European companies who will always be welcome in Europe.

We want to boost the development of our European data industry. And to succeed, we must overcome some obstacles.

First, we have to focus on developing secure and high-speed connectivity. This means significantly enhancing our broadband capacities, notably in 5G. And we have to look beyond 5G to 6G. And to my friend Thierry Breton’s idea of a low earth orbit satellite project.

We also have to ramp up our plan for chips and microprocessors – from design to advanced manufacturing – that will equip the interconnected “things” in our daily lives. Today Europe accounts for 10% of global production. We should double that figure to become less dependent.

Our European digital future is limitless and exciting.  Across our digital sector – our entrepreneurs, our researchers, our high-tech workers – we have the talent, energy and ambition to be successful.

At the European level, we have a clear view of where we are going, and how to get there. Our strengths, our challenges, and above all, the immense opportunities that lie ahead. We want to pioneer a digital strategy that combines our regulatory might with innovation and investment.  We want to develop a human- and values-based approach to our digital, data, and artificial intelligence industry. We have a strategy for the future. We are capable. We have the tools and the people to make it a success. And we have the means. Our historic 1.8 trillion euro agreement will provide the funds to drive forward our digital transformation.

Let’s make Europe a digital powerhouse. Thank you.